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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
Chapter 1: "The Old Pyncheon Family"
This chapter provides the setting of the novel in terms of time and place. One hundred and sixty years have passed since the House of the Seven Gables was built in Salem, a small New England town. The chapter also gives the historical background from where the story will proceed. Hawthorne begins by describing the house with its huge elm tree looming large over the weather-beaten structure. This House of the Seven Gables stands on Pyncheon Street, formerly known as Maule's Lane.
The original inhabitant of the property on which the house is built was Matthew Maule, whose house was a small thatched hut. As the town prospered, Maule's property became more desirable. Colonel Pyncheon, a respectable and important figure in the town, grew interested in Maule's piece of land and claimed it on the basis of a grant given by the legislature. Matthew Maule, however, refused to give up his dwelling, a fact that angered Colonel Pyncheon. Largely as a result of his resistance, Matthew Maule was charged with witchcraft and hanged. Knowing his accuser, Maule, before his hanging, pointed to Colonel Pyncheon from the scaffold and uttered the curse, "God will give him blood to drink."
After Maule's death, Colonel Pyncheon decided to use the property to build a large family mansion, "ponderously framed of old timber and calculated to endure for many generations." Pyncheon, seemingly unconcerned by the curse, chose the exact location on which to build the home as Maule had. Ironically, the head carpenter was the same Maule had considered. When finished, the house was an imposing structure with seven gables pointed at every side with beautiful Gothic ornamentation. To celebrate its completion, the important people of the village were invited to a house warming. What surprised them all was that the colonel was not there to welcome them. When the lieutenant governor of the province arrived, he felt insulted that the colonel was not there and demanded that he be summoned to the gathering. The servant was scared to do so, for his master had given explicit orders that he was not to be disturbed. As a result, the lieutenant governor himself went to look for Pyncheon. He found the colonel seated in a chair with a pen in his hand and blood on his ruff and beard. There was much speculation about the cause of death, but the coroner declared it was "Sudden Death" probably due to apoplexy.
After the colonel's death, the Pyncheon family suffered hardships for generations. They failed to claim a large, family tract of land in Maine, even though many Pyncheons studied the map to locate it and often tried to seize it. One of the Pyncheons was convicted of murdering his uncle and sent to prison. Another almost lost the family home because he became a Tory during the Revolution. The people of the village blamed these trying circumstances on the curse of Matthew Maule.
The present generation of Pyncheons is introduced. Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, who seems to have the influence and dynamism of the old Colonel, heads it. Ms. Hepzibah Pyncheon is the current inhabitant of the decaying house.
The chapter opens with a description of the House of the Seven Gables that was built with pride and cursed with death. As a result, the details about the mansion appropriately emphasize its darkness and sharpness and the tree that shadows it. The house suffers from disrepair and decay, much like the Pyncheon family.
The family's ill fortune that has lasted for generations is believed to be a direct retribution for the injustice that old Judge Pyncheon inflicted on Matthew Maule. Ironically, the huge elm tree has flourished amidst the decay and foreshadows the possibility of a new life for the house.
The House of the Seven Gables is more than a dwelling place. It is the basic setting of the novel and the symbol of a proud family that believes it is better than the rest of society. Because the Pyncheons believe they are worth more than they really are, they spend generations searching for the vast tract of family land in Maine; in fact, they become obsessed with the quest to find the land in hopes of restoring their proper prominence in society.
It is also significant to note that the portrait of Colonel Pyncheon, who had Maule hanged and who built the house, has hung in a prominent place through the ages. His face seems to cast a gloomy shadow on the house.
The chapter is important because it gives the historical background of the Pyncheon family and explains Maule's curse, which is to play a dominant role in the course of the narrative. It also creates the atmosphere of mystery that will be part of the novel and the contrast of light and dark, (good and evil) that is central to the plot.